The People and the Black Book
The Tswassen people live in the south end of Greater Vancouver, close to the upscale community named after them. They've been on this land, though much more of it, for thousands of years. Back in the day, they had free run of forest and ocean. They hunted and fished, carved their wooden art in fragrant cedar, wove their baskets, held their potlatches. They sang and danced their grief and joy, their welcome and warning, their coming and going.
Now, they're confined to a narrow wedge of land between the mudflats and an industrial park, and they rely on a casino for most of their income. Among them, there is a high incidence of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and incest, domestic violence, and health issues of every kind.
The Tswassens have a prophecy 500 years old. One of their ancient holy men foretold that a people pale as birch would one day come from across the great water in large canoes. They would bring with them a Black Book. The Black Book was Truth, end to end, a gift of inestimable good. The people lived for many years awaiting the prophecy's fulfillment.
And then one day it happened. The big canoes— bigger than the Tswassens ever imagined—arrived. They teemed with people pale as birch. And, yes, they brought with them a Black Book.
Then the killings started. The Tswassens became an obstacle to the pale men, and the pale men slaughtered them, and those they didn't slaughter they enslaved.
Their story and mine
This is part of my history. In Canada, it's part of all of our histories. The stories are legion: every encounter between white and native people in our country (in North America, actually) involved deception, betrayal, empty promises, often violence. Almost every native community in our nation had dreams and visions of the white man's coming: all of them have stories of the nightmares and heartaches that followed.
A passage in Charles Frazier's novel 13 Moons sums it up well. The story is told by Will Cooper, orphaned at a young age and raised in the wilds of West Virginia by a Cherokee chief named Bear. Will narrates:
"Baptists convened an offer to render the Bible—or a least a few of its most striking episodes—into the syllabary and supply copies of it to the people. Bear wanted me to read him some of the book before he decided to accept the offer or not… . He liked the story of Job, especially God's pride in his own handiwork in creating all the animals and the varieties of landscape and weather … God's bragging about how well the nostrils of horses turned out struck Bear as some kind of truth about creation… . Also, the story of the expulsion from Eden got his full attention, though his most persistent question was how big I thought the snake was. In the end, he said he judged the Bible to be a sound book. Nevertheless, he wondered why the white people were not better than they are, having had it for so long. He promised that as soon as the white people achieved Christianity, ...
Mark is an associate professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, AB, and formerly was pastor of New Life Community Baptist Church in Duncan, BC.